The structure of society in England was of a somewhat peculiar type. In addition to slaves, who in early times seem to have been numerous, we find in Wessex and apparently also in Mercia three classes, described as twelfhynde, sixhynde and twihynde from the amount of their wergilds, viz. 1200, 600 and 200 shillings respectively. It is probable that similar classes existed also in Northumbria, though not under the same names. Besides these terms there were others which were probably in use everywhere, viz. gesiðcund for the two higher classes and ceorlisc for the lowest. Indeed, we find these terms even in Kent, though the social system of that kingdom seems to have been of an essentially different character. Here the wergild of the ceorlisc class amounted to 100 shillings, each containing twenty silver coins (sceattas), as against 200 shillings of four (in Wessex five) silver coins, and was thus very much greater than the latter. Again, there was apparently but one gestiðcund class in Kent, with a wergild of 300 shillings, while, on the other hand, below the ceorlisc class we find three classes of persons described as laetas, who corresponded in all probability to the liti or freedmen of the continental laws, and who possessed wergilds of 80, 60 and 40 shillings respectively.
To these we find nothing analogous in the other kingdoms, though the poorer classes of Welsh freemen had wergilds varying from 120 to 60 shillings. It should be added that the differential treatment of the various classes was by no means confined to the case of wergilds. We find it also in the compensations to which they were entitled for various injuries, in the fines to which they were liable, and in the value attached to their oaths. Generally, though not always, the proportions observed were the same as in the wergilds.
The nature of the distinction between the gesiðcund and ceorlisc classes is nowhere clearly explained; but it was certainly hereditary and probably of considerable antiquity. In general we may perhaps define them as nobles and commons, though in view of the numbers of the higher classes it would probably be more correct to speak of gentry and peasants. The distinction between the twelfhynde and sixhynde classes was also in part at least hereditary, but there is good reason for believing that it arose out of the possession of land. The former consisted of persons who possessed, whether as individuals or families, at least five hides of land - which practically means a village - while the latter were landless, i.e. probably without this amount of land. Within the ceorlisc class we find similar subdivisions, though they were not marked by a difference in wergild. The gafolgelda or tributarius (tribute-payer) seems to have been a ceorl who possessed at least a hide, while the gebur was without land of his own, and received his outfit as a loan from his lord.
4. Payments and Services. - We have already had occasion to refer to the dues which were rendered by different classes of the population, and which the reeves in royal villages had to collect and superintend. The payments seem to have varied greatly according to the class from which they were due. Those rendered by landowners seem to have been known as feorm or fostor, and consisted of a fixed quantity of articles paid in kind. In Ine's Laws (cap. 70) we find a list of payments specified for a unit of ten hides, perhaps the normal holding of a twelfhynde man - though on the other hand it may be nothing more than a mere fiscal unit in an aggregate of estates. The list consists of oxen, sheep, geese, hens, honey, ale, loaves, cheese, butter, fodder, salmon and eels. Very similar specifications are found elsewhere. The payments rendered by the gafolgelda (tributarius) were known as gafol (tributuni), as his name implies. In Ine's Laws we hear only of the hwitel or white cloak, which was to be of the value of six pence per household (hide), and of barley, which was to be six pounds in weight for each worker. In later times we meet with many other payments both in money and in kind, some of which were doubtless in accordance with ancient custom.
On the other hand the gebur seems not to have been liable to payments of this kind, presumably because the land which he cultivated formed part of the demesne (inland) of his lord. The term gafol, however, may have been applied to the payments which he rendered to the latter.
The services required of landowners were very manifold in character. Probably the most important were military service (fird, expeditio) and the repairing of fortifications and bridges - the trinoda necessitas of later times. Besides these we find reference in charters of the 9th century to the keeping of the king's hunters, horses, dogs and hawks, and the entertaining of messengers and other persons in the king's service. The duties of men of the sixhynde class, if they are to be identified with the radcnihtas (radmanni) of later times, probably consisted chiefly in riding on the king's (or their lord's) business. The services of the peasantry can only be conjectured from what we find in later times. Presumably their chief duty was to undertake a share in the cultivation of the demesne land. We need scarcely doubt also that the labour of repairing fortifications and bridges, though it is charged against the landowners, was in reality delegated by them to their dependents.
5. Warfare. - All classes are said to have been liable to the duty of military service. Hence, since the ceorls doubtless formed the bulk of the population, it has been thought that the Anglo-Saxon armies of early times were essentially peasant forces. The evidence at our disposal, however, gives little justification for such a view. The regulation that every five or six hides should supply a warrior was not a product of the Danish invasions, as is sometimes stated, but goes back at least to the beginning of the 9th century. Had the fighting material been drawn from the ceorlisc class a warrior would surely have been required from each hide, but for military service no such regulation is found. Again, the fird (fyrd) was composed of mounted warriors during the 9th century, though apparently they fought on foot, and there are indications that such was the case also in the 7th century. No doubt ceorls took part in military expeditions, but they may have gone as attendants and camp-followers rather than as warriors, their chief business being to make stockades and bridges, and especially to carry provisions. The serious fighting, however, was probably left to the gesiðcund classes, who possessed horses and more or less effective weapons.